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How Germany's ‘Doctor No’ disrupted allied unity on tanks for Ukraine

Allied anger at Germany mounts as Chancellor Olaf Scholz keeps shifting his demands for arming Ukraine with main battle tanks.

U.S. and German flags fly outside the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
U.S. and German flags fly outside the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. (Lucas Jackson/AP)

In the weeks leading up to Friday’s conference of the two dozen nations of the Ukraine Contact Group at the U.S.-run Ramstein Air Base in southwest Germany, there has been a steady trickle of information about what military hardware allies were planning to send to the war-torn nation to help bolster its defenses and launch counteroffensives to repel Russia’s invasion.

For most participants who attended Friday’s meeting, the most coveted outcome eluded them. No agreement was reached that would allow the various countries that owned and operated German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks to send these vehicles to the Ukrainians. Western tanks have long been one of Kyiv’s key requests and are now widely viewed as essential to allow the Ukrainian military to retake more territory in the coming months.

The frenetic pace of reporting ahead of the meeting often had the air of an auction house, with NATO countries desperately trying to outdo one another for the extravagance of their aid packages and the fanfare with which they’re announced. As at all auctions, what may pass for a public display of friendly one-upmanship masked a backroom fandango of heated argument, last-minute dealmaking and broken promises.

“If all other countries had contributed in the same way as Denmark, the Ukrainians would be in a much better position right now,” Danish Defense Minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen boasted in regard to his country’s astounding disclosure that it was donating its entire stock of 19 CAESAR 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine.

Danish Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen gives a statement during the Joint Expeditionary Force leaders summit in Riga, Latvia, in 2022.
Danish Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen gives a statement during the Joint Expeditionary Force leaders summit in Riga, Latvia, in 2022. (Gints Ivuskans/AFP via Getty Images)

The Danish contribution of a French-made weapon, one Ukrainian soldiers have classed as an artillery prize on the battlefield, was announced Thursday, on the eve of the Ramstein meeting. Ellemann-Jensen’s remark, one European diplomat told Yahoo News, was not an idle one. For months, smaller, less wealthy countries, particularly those geographically closer to Russia, have been trying to persuade, cajole or shame their bigger, wealthier allies, particularly those at a safe distance from Russia, into doing more for Ukraine. (To put Copenhagen’s commitment in perspective, France, a country with 11 times the population of Denmark and which manufactures the howitzers, has sent only 18 CAESARs to Ukraine.)

“We hear about how difficult it is for some of our allies to source ammunition or deplete their stocks of certain platforms to help Ukraine,” the European diplomat said. “Well, some of us are emptying our arsenals entirely, leaving us far more vulnerable to a Russian attack.”

Indeed, Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted yesterday that her Baltic nation, with a population of just 1.3 million and a shared 183-mile border with Russia, was now donating more than 1% of its gross national product to Kyiv. Estonia's latest security assistance package, according to Kaimo Kuusk, Estonia’s ambassador to Kyiv, includes all of the Estonia armed forces’ FH70 towed howitzers.

Artillerymen of Ukraine's Armed Forces destroy the Russian invaders with the help of the German 155-mm FH70 howitzer, Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine. (Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Artillerymen of Ukraine's Armed Forces destroy the Russian invaders with the help of the German 155-mm FH70 howitzer, Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine. (Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

More guns and bullets are on their way, but the outstanding question before and during the Ramstein conference was the will-they-won’t-they one of sending heavy armor to Ukraine. Without fortified vehicles, say military analysts, Kyiv’s ability to conduct combined-arms warfare for any forthcoming spring attack on the Russians will be difficult, as will any effort to stymie another massive attack by the Russians.

That question was seemingly settled early by the French. On Jan. 4, Paris announced that it would be sending “light tanks” in the form of AMX-10 RC heavy reconnaissance vehicles to Kyiv. Pledges from Ukraine’s allies followed that same week. Germany offered Marder infantry fighting vehicles and the United States said it was sending 50 — later increased to 100 — of its own prized Bradleys, adding two modern and capable armored systems long on Kyiv’s wish list.

The Germans and the Dutch further promised to match the U.S. contribution to Ukraine’s bolstered air defenses by donating their own Patriot missile batteries.

Later in the month, the Swedes, now on the cusp of joining NATO along with Finland, announced another significant military consignment of 50 of their modern and extremely capable CV90 infantry fighting vehicles, as well as an unspecified number of Archer self-propelled howitzers.

The most significant new commitment, however, came from the United Kingdom. On Jan. 15, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced Britain was sending 14 Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, a dam-break moment in the war and in Western military support for a country desperate to join both the European Union and NATO.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a community visit to the Eden Project North the United Kingdom.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a community visit to the Eden Project North the United Kingdom. (Owen Humphreys/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Even before Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, Kyiv had long sought Western tanks, only to be told, in effect, “Yeah, right.” These vehicles are notorious gas-guzzlers and logistical nightmares, and are not easy to repair by native armies at peace, much less foreign ones in the throes of combat. Although Ukraine still has a large number of ex-Soviet tanks in its arsenal, the strains of war have taken a heavy toll over the past year. Moreover, sourcing spare parts to keep their remaining tanks operational and their 125-millimeter Soviet-caliber shells firing is a serious challenge, considering that Russia and its allies continue to be the main producers of both.

The promise of the British tanks was welcomed by Kyiv, even if the motive behind it was tacitly conditioned on a third party’s willingness to follow through.

The small numbers of Challenger 2s in British service — the British Army operates only 227, and Oman is the only other country to operate the type — means that sending a squadron to Ukraine was more of a gesture intended to break the tank impasse and encourage other nations to send more of their own.

The model Ukraine needs most is the German-produced Leopard 2. This vehicle is high on Kyiv’s wish list for multiple reasons. It is the most widely used Western main battle tank and is in the arsenal of multiple European nations, including Ukraine’s staunch ally Poland, which, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace hinted Thursday, had already put in a formal request for the transfer of 14.

German army battle tanks Leopard 2 return after a NATO exercise at the Pabradė military training field in Lithuania in 2017.
German army battle tanks Leopard 2 return after a NATO exercise at the Pabradė military training field in Lithuania in 2017. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

The Leopard 2 has a much smaller logistical footprint than comparable models, most notably the American-operated Abrams tank. U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl cited the American tank’s exceptionally poor fuel economy as a reason that the vehicle was unsuited to Kyiv’s needs. “It has a jet engine,” Kahl said in a press conference in Washington Wednesday, referring to the tank’s multifuel turbine engine. “I think it’s about 3 gallons to the mile with jet fuel.”

The Leopard 2, however, is powered by a conventional diesel engine and is relatively fuel-efficient in comparison. It’s also in more plentiful supply close to Ukraine and is a lot easier to maintain.

Herein lay the soap opera behind the scenes at Ramstein.

The Germans have long held out on supplying or allowing countries that purchased Leopard 2 tanks to supply Ukraine with the vehicles because of the restriction on reexporting weaponry without the consent of the original supplying country. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s position for months has been that Germany will not act “unilaterally” in supplying Kyiv with heavy armor, something seemingly nullified by the United Kingdom’s pending shipment of Challenger 2s. Except that position is no longer the case.

Berlin shifted its position after the British announcement, claiming that only the U.S. Abrams counted.

Olaf Scholz, Germany's chancellor, on the second day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
Olaf Scholz, Germany's chancellor, on the second day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. (Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Speaking at a campaign event on Monday, Scholz argued that German deliveries of tanks must be coordinated “especially with our transatlantic partner, with the United States of America.” On Wednesday, Scholz’s spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit claimed that there was “no change in the situation now because of the step that the British government has announced.” Even more confusingly, Germany’s new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius denied what his boss earlier stated publicly, saying on German television that “a linkage between German and U.S. tanks is not something that I am aware of.”

Many Western countries have lost patience with Scholz and his ever-shifting goalposts. Weeks ago, one European diplomat told Yahoo News, the German chancellor’s nickname among allies had become Doktor Nein, or Doctor No, an unflattering allusion to the half-German, half-Chinese James Bond villain who works for SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, to give its full title).

A “very, very, very, very needed decision,” Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, said at a panel in Davos on Tuesday, referring to German authorization to send the Leopard 2s. Duda’s Lithuanian counterpart, Gitanas Nausėda, speaking on the same panel, called Berlin’s stalling a “pity because every day of this war costs a lot.”

The Polish position hardened a day later. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki threatened to send the German-made tanks without Berlin’s consent if Scholz continued to change the rules of the game as it was being played. “Permission is a secondary matter,” Morawiecki said. “We will either get it quickly or do what we see fit.” (This was no small threat: Violating an end-user agreement could jeopardize all future arms deals between Poland and Germany.)

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland's prime minister, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland's prime minister, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January: "Permission is a secondary matter." (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a further sign that Berlin was forfeiting the mantle of the European leadership it always believed it deserved, on Thursday, Wallace, along with representatives from Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Slovakia, released a joint statement in Tallinn, Estonia, calling for the Ukrainians to be provided with the equipment Ukraine needs to win the war. Main battle tanks were the first item on the list. The Dutch have now even offered to pay for the Leopard 2s.

Yet at Ramstein, Scholz’s position remained "nein" on both the direct and indirect provision of its tanks. Pistorius told journalists at the conference, “We will make our decisions as soon as possible.” Germany must “balance all the pros and contras [sic] before we decide things like that. … I am very sure that there will be a decision in the short term but … I don’t know how the decision will look.”

On- and offline, anger at Germany grows stronger by the hour. This evening, German protesters took to the streets of Berlin, many draped in Ukrainian flags, demanding the government send the tanks.

“Foreign observers come to wonder whether the German government even has the slightest perception of the level of diplomatic isolation Germany is in,” Nathalie Vogel, a senior fellow at the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy. “The nomination of Pistorius comes as one more proof that the Chancellery is either irresponsible or very poorly informed. Pistorius has a long track record of highly debatable positions on Russia as member of the German-Russia Friendship Group. Two years after the attack on Ukraine in 2016, he was still holding bilateral talks in order to engage Russia.”

Protesters, many of them expatriate Ukrainians living in Berlin, protest under the motto:
Protesters, many of them expatriate Ukrainians living in Berlin, protest under the motto: "Free the Leopards" in Berlin in January. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Vogel added that one reason for Germany’s self-contradictory (and self-flagellating) policy making on Ukraine is that the government is heavily siloed along partisan or ideological lines. Scholz maintains a team of his own hand-selected foreign policy advisers, culled from the ranks of his Social Democratic Party, who work independently of the German Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by the Green Party. The environmentally driven Greens see Moscow and the Kremlin’s weaponized export industry for gas and oil as international security threats to Europe. Thus, the Greens been far more bullish on helping Ukraine fend off its invaders. “If this were up to the Greens, Ukraine would already have Leopards,” Vogel said.

Meanwhile, Timothy Garton Ash, the celebrated British scholar and historian of modern Germany, yesterday tweeted an effigy of Scholz as a new entry in the English lexicon. The verb “scholzing,” it read, means “communicating good intentions only to use/find/invent any reason imaginable to delay these and/or prevent them from happening.”

"What are you saving this shit for?” Marc Polymeropolous, the former head of European and Eurasian operations at the CIA, told Yahoo News in relation to Scholz’s intransigence. “As we collectively do the right thing — late — there's a cost attached in the form of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian lives. This is not a game of Risk. This is something we should have done earlier. Russian atrocities shouldn't be forcing us to get our act together.”

Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, told Yahoo News that the refusal to provide Leopard 2s was “expected,” though he remains optimistic that the issue will be resolved sooner or later. “Germany's approach to providing Ukraine with military assistance has evolved. At the beginning, it was difficult to get anything from them, but with time they changed their approach. They’ve sent Gepard and IRIS-T antiaircraft weapons. We look at this as a temporary problem.”

Asked to rate the totality of weapons pledges made around and at Ramstein, Sak said: “A-. It would have been a A+ with tanks.”